From the moment Jonathan Andrews awoke, he knew that something was very wrong.
He wasn’t sure exactly how he knew at first, but the motel room was a good start. It was small, nondescript, of the type found in just about every low-rent chain from San Francisco to New York. Double bed covered with a faded floral print spread, tiny table with two chairs, single window with closed curtains, inoffensive seascape print framed in light wood. A doorway on the other side of the room undoubtedly led to the bathroom, as it did in every other motel room of this type.
Jonathan sat up in bed and looked around, taking in the scenery. Yep, it was a fairly standard-issue motel room, all right.
The only problem was: when Jonathan had gone to bed last night, he hadn’t been in a motel room.
“What’s going on...?” he whispered to himself. No one answered, but then, he hadn’t really expected anyone to answer.
Moving slowly as if in a daze, Jonathan swung his legs around and put his feet on the floor, sitting up on the edge of the bed. As he did so, he caught a glimpse of his face in the mirror across the room: pale, thin, the expression confused and wary. His short white hair was awry from sleep; mechanically he raised his hands and ran his long fingers through it. He touched the tips of his pointed ears. He still hadn’t gotten completely used to those—to any of his “changes”—even though they had been a part of him for several years now. At least he didn’t have it as bad as some of the new creatures that had started appearing: as odd as he sometimes felt with his elven features, he wouldn’t have traded them for those of an ork or a troll. It was bad enough being unusual, but to be unusual and looked upon with suspicion and hatred by a significant portion of one’s fellow beings was a bit more than Jonathan was prepared to deal with.
He rose to a standing position and looked around the room. His reflection regarded him from the mirror—tall, lean, dressed in a loose-fitting T-shirt and a pair of shorts. It wasn’t his usual sleeping attire, but that was the least of his concerns at the moment.
A dim illumination, emanating from a small night-light near the side of the bed, suffused the area. His bare feet rested on shabby carpet that looked like it might have been tan at some point in its past, but which was now a grimy combination of brown and gray, stained and tracked with the treads of many dirty shoes. There was no sign of the motel’s name anywhere in the room, not even a room-service menu or city guide next to the—what? The thing on the nightstand looked vaguely like a telephone, but it was like no phone he’d ever seen before. Tentatively he picked up the receiver and was surprised when a little video screen lit up to reveal a very authentic-looking computer generated image of a woman. She chirped, “City and listing, please.”
He quickly hung up the receiver; the image faded.
Breath coming faster, he turned around in place, taking in the rest of the room without really seeing it, examining his situation. Whatever was going on was very, very wrong. Nothing was as he remembered it. It was almost like a—
“Of course. It’s all a dream. That’s it...” he whispered aloud. His body slumped with relief as the answer came to him. Of course it was all a dream. He allowed himself to drop back down on the bed, resting his elbows on his knees. All a dream. Pretty soon I’ll wake up, and I might not even remember it. I’ll be back in my own room again, ready to get up and go to work. He smiled. Sometimes he did have very lucid dreams like this. He couldn’t recall every having had one quite this lucid before, but that didn’t mean anything. Dreams were funny things that operated by their own rules.
Jonathan got back into bed and pulled the covers up, wrinkling his nose slightly at the musty smell of the sheets. They should air this dream out a little, he thought, then chuckled at his own joke. He closed his eyes and tried to relax, to will sleep to descend once more upon him. But aren’t I already asleep? If you fall asleep in a dream, what happens? Do you have dreams within dreams?
The answer eluded him as consciousness once again departed.
Awareness returned again. For a moment he thought nothing had happened, but then he became conscious through his closed eyelids of the fact that it was lighter in the room than it had been before. Had he gone back to sleep after all? Great. I hope I didn’t oversleep. Not that anybody minds if I come in a little late, but it’s a bad precedent to set—
He opened his eyes.
A little shiver ran down his spine.
He was still in the motel room.
“Okay,” he said under his breath. “Something very weird is going on here.” He looked around the room; it hadn’t changed except that it was, as he had suspected, a little brighter. A weak shaft of sunlight shone in through the window, in a spot where the curtains didn’t quite meet.
He wondered what time it was. Spying a watch on the nightstand next to the telephone-thing, he picked it up. It wasn’t his: he’d never seen it before in his life. But at least it seemed to be working. 07:36, the digital readout informed him. He put the unfamiliar watch back on the nightstand and pondered his next option.
“Okay,” he said again. “Let’s see. What did I do last night?” He considered that for a few moments, but his memories were all of a fairly mundane variety: he had stayed up late working on some reports for work, and then gone to bed around midnight in his suite at home. He remembered climbing into bed, thinking about the reports and the presentation he was due to deliver later in the week.
He sat up and picked up the odd watch again, examining it for a date. WED, it proclaimed. 17. At least that fit. Last night had been Tuesday, he was sure of it, and so today was Wednesday. It was a start.
He still wasn’t convinced that this wasn’t a dream, but that certainty was developing quite a few cracks after his second awakening. It certainly looked real. Something skittered across the floor; he quickly lifted his feet off the floor. This isn’t a dream. I do not dream about cockroaches.
He took a deep breath. “I think I need to get out of here,” he announced. Checking to make sure the cockroach had disappeared from sight, he got up and began searching the room for his clothes. He would take a shower, get dressed, and then go see the manager of this place and see if he could get some light shed on the situation.
On the other side of the bed was a leather duffel bag with bungee cords crossed through its handles. Next to it was a briefcase, and hung over the back of a chair nearby was a dark overcoat. Under the chair as if neatly placed there was a pair of black boots. Jonathan looked at the items, head tilted in confusion: these items were not his. Like the watch, he had never seen them before.
Crouching down next to them, he looked first at the leather bag. What were the cords for, he wondered. He moved them aside and unzipped the bag.
On top were clothes—once again not his. They consisted of two pairs of jeans, clean and well-worn, socks and undershorts, and several T-shirts in gray, black, dark blue, and white. He pulled them out carefully, looking for a wallet, a personal planner, anything that might give him an idea whom the clothes and other things belonged to. There was no such identification. The only other things he found in the bag, buried down at the bottom under the clothes, were two solid plastic cylindrical tubes, a little longer than a pen or pencil but about twice as big around. Each of these items had a tiny electronic readout near one end; each readout looked like it was capable of displaying five digits but was currently dark and unhelpful. Jonathan carefully replaced all the items in the bag and zipped it back up.
The briefcase was no help at all; he couldn’t even get it open. He picked it up and looked it over, but it soon became clear that there was some kind of lock on it that required an action. What action was required, he didn’t know. There was no place for a key, and no place to enter a combination. He regarded it for a moment longer and then put it down next to the leather bag.
Ignoring the boots, he rose and looked at the coat. It was dark gray, almost black, long in duster style and unadorned. He grasped it by the collar and picked it up, surprised to discover how heavy it was. He dropped it on the bed and probed at it for a moment, which revealed the reason for the weight: the coat was padded with very well concealed armor, probably some kind of plastic or resin from the feel of it. “Bulletproof?” he asked himself under his breath.
His hand fell on a bulge within the coat—one that didn’t feel like another armor panel. He opened it up, slipped his hand into the hidden inner pocket and gasped at what he pulled out.
It was a gun. A rather large gun, as pistols went. It remained there in his shaking hand, black and fearsome looking. He almost dropped it, but tightened his grip at the last moment. Jonathan didn’t have much experience with guns—what if this one was loaded and it went off when it hit the bed? Carefully, his hand still trembling, he placed the gun on the bed next to the coat. He drew himself back up to his full height and stood there staring at everything he had found, his mind spinning frantic circles as he tried to make sense of the situation.
All at once a fearful thought stabbed its way to the surface of his mental soup: What if you’re not supposed to be here? What if whoever this room belongs to is coming back? What if he finds you here going through his stuff?
Jonathan gasped aloud, his gaze quickly darting around to verify that he was still alone. He even crossed the room to peer into the bathroom and the shower stall. Obviously, whoever rightfully belonged in this room was a dangerous customer—that was clear by the gun and the armored coat. God only knew what was in the briefcase, or what those strange cylinders were.
Does he know I’m here? Did somebody knock me out and bring me here, and I woke up before I was supposed to?
He hurried back out into the main part of the room. Suddenly urgency seemed important where it had not before. Never mind the shower—he had to get out of here, and besides, he didn’t want to be vulnerable if the room’s resident returned. Reluctantly he re-opened the leather bag and pulled out one of the pairs of jeans, a white T-shirt, and a pair of socks. He didn’t like stealing the man’s clothes (he didn’t like the thought of wearing the man’s clothes) but he didn’t have another option. He couldn’t go out like this and there were no other clothes in the room.
Oddly, the clothes fit him perfectly. “Maybe he’s another elf,” he muttered under his breath. That was strange all by itself. He hadn’t encountered too many other elves of his age; most of them were much younger. Then again, the man could just be a tall, thin human. There were certainly enough of them around.
Hesitating for a moment, he reached under the chair and drew out the boots. After hovering for a moment in indecision, he shoved his feet into them. They too fit like they were his own. He didn’t give that any particular thought, though; his breath was coming fast, his eyes shifting back and forth, watching the door and the window, his sharp ears listening for any sounds outside that might precede the untimely return of the unknown man.
He wondered if he should take any of the other items and decided against it. Perhaps the man wouldn’t pursue him for a pair of jeans or boots, but the gun, the briefcase—No, I’d better just leave them where they are. He turned toward the door, then stopped and turned back. His eyes fell on the coat, still lying where he’d draped it across the bed. Should he? If anyone dangerous—anyone dangerous and armed, he reminded himself—was going to be after him, it might not hurt to have a little extra insurance. He picked up the coat and slipped it on. It dropped over his shoulders and settled comfortably around his body. The armor, which had seemed so heavy when he was holding the coat, distributed its weight in such a way that he barely noticed it with it on. Finally, he snatched up the odd watch from the nightstand and shoved it into his pocket.
He caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror as he passed it on the way to the door...and stopped to stare.
For a moment the image wavered in the mirror, revealing a frightening individual looking back at him: pale, expressionless, with frigid white eyes regarding him implacably from a dark-side parody of his own face. Then it was gone and it was just Jonathan again: also pale, but with normal eyes and a fearful, hesitant expression. He shook his head quickly to clear it and looked at the mirror again. The image was normal now.
He left the room, closing the door behind him. It locked with a decisive click.
There was no going back now.
He didn’t get to talk to the manager of the motel (which, he noticed by the rundown sign out front, was called the Thrifty Inn) because there wasn’t anyone to be found at the office when he went there to check. The door was locked up tight, the windows covered over with formidable-looking bars. It was just as well, he thought, and did not pursue it further. It was probably better if no one saw him leave. That way they couldn’t tell the other man what had happened to him. He hurried off, doing up the coat as he moved.
He didn’t stop until he had gone several blocks and was well out of sight of the Thrifty Inn, moving swiftly and with purpose. At that point he halted and leaned against a building to rest.
He hadn’t taken much interest in his surroundings up until this point, concentrating on the way ahead, but now he looked around. The area looked tantalizingly familiar, and yet it didn’t. He was in a neighborhood of mixed residential and commercial buildings, mid-height structures with businesses on their ground floors and apartments on the upper floors. Currently he was standing in front of a deli; next door was a barbershop. The deli was closed, but the barbershop’s sign was illuminated. Both businesses were fronted by gray concrete which was covered by a colorful accumulation of spray-painted graffiti. Jonathan recognized the marks of gangs, but had no idea of the particulars. In the parts of town he normally frequented, such activity was quickly curtailed and its results washed or sandblasted or painted away. Here, though, it appeared that the only way to get rid of one of the marks was to replace it with another.
He shivered a bit and drew the coat tighter around his body; the morning air carried a chill along with the faint stench of garbage, the sharp tang of damp pavement, and the reek of smog. He wondered if he was still in New York City or if his unseen counterpart had brought him here—wherever here was if it wasn’t NYC—while he had been sleeping, drugged, or otherwise unconscious.
In any case, he decided, the first order of business was to get out of here, and that meant calling someone to come and get him. He looked down at his wrist before realizing that he wasn’t wearing a watch. Pulling the strange watch he’d taken from the room out of his pocket, he glanced at it—8:07—and shoved it back in. After eight, which meant that someone would be at the office. He could call Anita, the morning receptionist, and ask her to have a cab sent for him. Soon enough all of this would be over and he would be back home, back in the world he understood.
That decided, he moved toward the barbershop and opened the door. There was a little electronic beep as he crossed the threshold. As he expected, there were no customers in evidence this early. The barber, who was sitting in one of his chairs with his back to the door, swung around at the sound.
Jonathan hesitated a moment, startled. The man was an ork. He was dressed neatly but casually in a white shirt and dark pants, and smiled a fangy smile as Jonathan entered. “Hey there, chummer,” he said. His voice was rough from too many cigarettes but held a friendly tone. “Out to get a haircut early today, are ya?”
“Uh...no...” He recovered quickly and shook his head. “No. I—I was wondering if I could use your phone.”
The ork tilted his head and regarded Jonathan with some suspicion. “There’s a pay phone in the back.” He hooked his thumb over his shoulder toward the rear of the shop. “Somethin’ wrong with the public telecom outside?”
Jonathan turned, his gaze following the ork’s indication. All he saw outside was a small kiosk near the curb, but it didn’t look familiar to him at all. “I...don’t know. I didn’t think of that.”
“It’s okay.” The ork waved him off dismissively. “Wanted to come in, get out of the cold—no problem. Phone’s in the back.”
“Thank you.” Jonathan nodded to him and hurried toward the back of the barbershop. There was a door marked with male and female pictographs—unisex restroom, of course—and next to it was an object hanging on the wall.
Jonathan studied it for a moment. As a general class of thing, it resembled the phone-thing he had found on the nightstand back at the Thrifty Inn, except this one was larger and more elaborate. It had a little two-inch-diagonal screen with some kind of camera pickup above it; next to the screen was a numbered keypad, and near that was a speaker. Panels protruded from the wall about two feet on either side of the unit, allowing the body of the caller to obscure the viewscreen from any unwanted observers.
The one thing it did not have was a coin slot. Instead there was a round slot below the speaker, and next to that it read, “Local calls, ¥0.5.” Jonathan stared at the slot. What was going on here? Was this some weird new experimental type of phone? What was he supposed to do to get it to work? He fumbled in the pockets of his jeans and the longcoat, but came up with nothing useful. Finally, in desperation, he pressed 0.
Almost immediately the face of a human female appeared on the screen. “Operator.” She sounded bored.
Jonathan wasn’t sure what to say. “I’m...trying to make a call,” he said.
“How can I help you?” The voice didn’t change inflection; Jonathan realized with surprise that it was not a human at all, but a computer-generated image. A very good one, though—it was difficult to tell from the real thing without a close look.
“I’m not sure how to use this public phone. It’s not like one I’ve ever seen before.” He figured he might as well go for the bold approach. Maybe this faux operator would think he was a tourist or something.
There was a slight pause as if the operator program was accessing some seldom-used routine. “Insert your credstick in the slot and then key in the LTG number of your party,” it recited at last. “If you need directory assistance, press 9.”
Jonathan looked at the screen and then down at the hole. Credstick...So that’s what those things in the man’s bag were—some kind of money. He was beginning to regret not taking them with him. “I...don’t have a credstick. Is there any other way to do it?”
“I’m sorry, sir.” The voice sounded slightly contrite: apparently whoever had written this program had tried to inject a bit of human courtesy into it. “Public telecoms require a credstick for use.”
“Uh...all right. Thank you.” Without waiting for a response, Jonathan hung up. His shoulders slumped slightly. Now what? He was stuck somewhere he didn’t know, with no money (and apparently in a place where nobody used money anyway) and even the phones make sense. He turned back around to the ork, who was now putting his work area in order in preparation for the day’s customers. “Excuse me—”
“Yeah?” The ork’s tone was a bit impatient, but not unfriendly. “Somethin’ else I can do for you, chummer?” Jonathan noticed that he looked a bit nervous, too.
“I...Would you mind telling me where this is?”
The ork tilted his head. “Whaddya mean, where this is? This is McCarthy’s Barber Shop. Didn’t ya see the sign?”
Jonathan shook his head. “No. I mean—where. The address. The name of the street.” The city, he thought, but he didn’t ask. That would sound far too strange. How far had the mysterious dangerous man taken him, anyway?
“Oh. I’m on Greene Street.” His expression got a little less friendly. “Listen, buddy, it’s been great talkin’ to ya and all, but if you’re not plannin’ on gettin’ your hair cut, would you mind movin’ on? I’ve got to get ready for the day here.”
Jonathan nodded slowly. “Of course. I’m sorry. Thank you for your time.” He nodded a farewell to the ork and quickly headed out of the barbershop and out onto Greene Street.
Don’t panic, he told himself as he moved off down the street. There has to be a logical explanation for all of this. You just haven’t found it yet. Greene Street, the ork had said. That sure sounded like a New York City address, but he couldn’t be certain. He had to call the office. They’d be able to help him. They would send someone for him and before long he’d be chuckling about this over a nice cup of coffee. Or maybe something a little stronger than coffee.
But first I have to figure out a way to call. He continued on his way, passing more small businesses—a junk shop, a small grocery store, a couple of bars, a pawn shop, a Chinese restaurant. Some were open, some closed. There were more people out now, most of them moving down the street with a sense of purpose. Men, women, a few children, and surprisingly, representatives of all five metatypes. The people were mostly human, but Jonathan saw enough orks, dwarves, elves, and even a few trolls that he noticed it as being out of the ordinary. He was used to seeing other metatypes, but rarely in such concentrations. At the office and the area around his home, an occasional elf (too occasional, he thought) or dwarf was common, while orks and trolls were rare and almost always there temporarily—to repair or deliver something, for instance. Still, though, this revelation barely made a dent on Jonathan’s psyche, given all the other weird things that were currently plaguing it right now. That one could line up and take a number. At the rate he was going, he might get to it sometime next week.
He stopped after another few blocks (the street names were definitely looking like New York City, but no part of it he was familiar with) and leaned against the side of a building. He had passed a few more of the public telecoms the ork at the barbershop had pointed out, but after examining the first one, he determined that they, like the pay phone inside, required the insertion of one of those cylindrical plastic things. He sighed, watching the people go by without really noticing them. He had to get some money somewhere. Not only to make the call, but also possibly to pay a taxi to take him home if he couldn’t get hold of anyone. He was nervous about staying around this area any longer than he had to—he had no idea whether the man from the hotel room was looking for him, or what he would do with him if he found him.
Halfheartedly he searched his pockets again, hoping he had overlooked something. The longcoat had several pockets: two at the hip, inside breast pockets on both sides, and the strange pocket that had obviously been added to hold the gun Jonathan had left back at the room. Unfortunately, they were all empty.
Jonathan sighed. Reflexively, he patted his jeans pockets before he remembered that they too were empty—but they weren’t empty. He reached into the right-side front and pulled out the chronograph he had put there earlier. He’d forgotten about it.
Curiously, he examined it. The digital display now read 09:26. He turned it over in his hands as his mind began to work. I saw a pawn shop back there a couple of blocks. I could sell this...I wonder how much I could get for it? Anything would be a help. He didn’t need much, after all—just enough to get him back home, or back to the office.
He was about to put it back in his pocket and retrace his steps to the pawn shop when his gaze fell on another section of the thing’s large face. He hadn’t noticed it before because he had been too busy checking the time, but there was a tiny flipped-down panel above the digital display. Glancing around to make sure no one was paying too much attention to him, he flipped it up.
His eyes widened. Beneath the panel was a tiny screen, like the world’s smallest laptop computer screen. Below that was a little numbered keypad, arranged in the same manner as a—
“A phone?” he muttered under his breath.
It sure looked like a phone. He smiled. Maybe we’re getting somewhere after all!
Still smiling, he carefully tapped the tiny O key. His smile broadened when a miniaturized version of the computer generated operator appeared on the screen. “Operator,” said the tiny speaker.
“Yes!” Jonathan whispered. Then, louder: “Can you connect me with 212-555-2873, please?”
The operator looked puzzled, at least as much as a computer construct could look puzzled. “I’m sorry, sir. That is not a valid LTG number.”
“A valid what?” Jonathan tilted his head in confusion. “It’s a valid phone number. For R. and J. Andrews, Inc. In New York City.”
“I’m sorry, sir. Please enter a valid LTG number to be connected.”
Jonathan took a deep breath. Okay, this was weird, but it was easy enough to solve. “Can I get directory assistance here?”
“I’ll transfer you, sir.” Without waiting for an answer, the operator disappeared and the screen went blue with a “Please Stand By” logo.
After a second or two, another computerized operator, this one male, appeared. “City and listing, please.”
“Manhattan. R. and J. Andrews, Inc.”
There was a pause. “I’m sorry, sir. I don’t have a listing for R. and J. Andrews, Inc. in Manhattan.”
Jonathan froze. “What do you mean, you don’t have a listing? It’s on First Avenue in Manhattan. Can you look again, please? That’s A-N-D-R-E-W-S.”
“Yes, sir. A-N-D-R-E-W-S. I’m sorry, but I show no such listing on First Avenue.” The operator’s voice was infinitely patient but implacable. “Sir?” it asked after several moments passed with no input. “Are you still there?”
Jonathan was leaning harder against the building now; his legs didn’t feel like they could quite support him. “Yes...I’m still here. All right. Uh...do you have a listing for an Andrews residence at 1761 W. 3rd Street?”
There was another pause. “No, sir. I’m sorry. There is no Andrews listed at that address.”
A cold feeling settled in the pit of Jonathan’s stomach. What the hell was going on here? “What about...Jonathan Andrews?” He spelled it out. “At 1761 W. 3rd St. Suite 2000.”
“I’m sorry, sir. No listing.”
“There has to be a listing! That’s me!” he said, his voice pitching a little too loud. He quickly lowered it when he noticed that passersby were giving him odd looks and diverting their paths so as not to get too close to him. “Listen,” he said more quietly, “I know there has to be a listing for Jonathan Andrews. I’m Jonathan Andrews.”
A moment passed. “We have several listings for John or Jonathan Andrews, sir.” He proceeded to rattle off several street names in various parts of New York City. None of them were at all familiar. “Do any of those help, sir?”
“No...” He sighed, realizing he wasn’t going to get any help here. “No. Thank you. I’ll...figure it out.” He closed the screen and stared at the watch-phone.
Now what was he supposed to do?
He looked at the phone again. He needed money. He could use the public telecoms to make calls if he had to, but he needed cash (or whatever passed for it) to do anything else. And since he had only one thing of value, he was going to have to sell it.
The interior of the pawn shop was dark and musty, with a vaguely unsavory air about it. Jonathan's gaze darted around as he opened the door and slipped through. Something buzzed, indicating his entrance. He was nervous but he wasn't sure why. It's just a pawn shop, he told himself sternly. Sure, maybe he'd never been inside one before, but that didn't make it dangerous. He moved through the store, noting the musical instruments, odd electronic equipment, and sporting goods lining the shelves along the walls. The display cases that held jewelry and other small, valuable items were in the back, where the proprietor could keep an eye on them.
There were two other people in the store: one customer and the store's proprietor. The customer, an ork in a military fatigue jacket, battered jeans, and combat boots, was perusing a collection of antique jewelry with an air of someone who was waiting for something to happen. Jonathan noticed the ork kept looking sideways at him and realized he was waiting for him. Probably waiting for me to leave so he can buy something illegal.
He ignored the ork for now and concentrated on the owner. A grizzled-looking dwarf in a backward-turned baseball cap and a black T-shirt that read “Kill 'Em All and Let God Sort 'Em Out,” he sat perched on a high stool behind the counter and regarded Jonathan with suspicion. “Help ya?” His accent was pure Noo Yawk, harsh and nasal.
“Uh...yes.” He approached the counter, carefully pulling the watch-phone from his pocket. He noticed that both the ork and the dwarf stiffened slightly, then relaxed as the item was revealed. “I'd—like to pawn this.” He held out the watch for inspection.
The dwarf's small, stubby fingers plucked it from Jonathan's hand without making skin-to-skin contact. He swung a gooseneck lamp around and switched it on, holding the watch under its light. “Hmm...” he said, and nodded to himself. Flipping the display up, he tried out the functions, nodded again, and then closed it up. “Nice piece,” he said. “Been over the road a bit, though—that'll take off its value.” His gaze travelled from the watch to Jonathan's face and then back again; Jonathan got the feeling he was being appraised as much as the watch was. “I'll give ya a hundred for it,” the dwarf said at last.
Jonathan paused. He had no idea how much it was worth, of course, and a hundred would probably keep him in phone calls and taxis for long enough to get back to somewhere he was familiar with. But still—there was something in the way the dwarf was looking at him. It was subtle, but it was there. Something in his eyes suggested that he was waiting to see what Jonathan's response would be.
Jonathan shook his head. “It's worth a lot more than that,” he said, hoping his bluff was sound. “Come on—is that the best you can do?”
Something in the dwarf's expression changed infinitesimally. “Okay,” he said grudgingly. “One-fifty. But that's my best offer.”
The dwarf snorted. By now, the ork was interested too. He had drifted over closer, still feigning concentration on the jewelry case. “Three?” the dwarf demanded, his voice full of contempt. “Yer crazy, chummer. One seventy-five. Take it or leave it.”
Again Jonathan paused. He needed the money more than he needed the watch, that was certain. He nodded. “Okay. One seventy-five.”
The dwarf nodded in reply, his fingers closing around the watch. “Deal. Gimme yer stick.”
“Yer credstick,” the dwarf said in the tone he would use to address a retarded poodle. “So I can make the transfer of funds.”
Jonathan froze. Was he going to need one of those just to get money? “I—don't have one.”
The ork couldn't take being out of the conversation anymore. He laughed rather unkindly. “He wants certified cred, Benny. Get a hint.”
Benny shot him a dirty look but didn't reply. “Okay, okay,” he muttered. “Everybody fraggin' wants...” He disappeared under the counter without finishing the sentence and came up with another of the cylindrical objects Jonathan had encountered back in the hotel room. After twiddling with it for a moment, he stuck it into a hole in his register, punched in some numbers, and then pulled it back out and offered it to Jonathan. “There ya go, chummer. The cred and the claim check are on the stick.”
Jonathan nodded. He took the stick and looked at it: small, faintly glowing numbers in the digital display read 175. “Thank you,” he said.
“Pleasure doin' business with ya,” Benny replied, already turning to the ork. Jonathan took the hint and got out of there fast.
Back out on the street again, he once more considered his options. He still didn’t know what was going on, but at least he had some money now. It was a start.
If he was going to get anywhere familiar, he was going to need a cab. He looked up, not surprised to see none in evidence. What did surprise him, though, was something he hadn’t noticed before because he’d been too busy paying attention to remedying his money situation: the cars were different. He swept his gaze up and down the street, noting the rounder, sleeker lines of the few vehicles parked there—even those that seemed old and beat-up. “Weird...” he muttered under his breath—but like all the other things going on in the periphery of his attention, he didn’t spare the time to worry about it. Get back to the office or home first, then worry about the weirdness. That became his mantra.
He started moving again. If there were no cabs here, there were bound to be some soon. Manhattan ran on cabs. Nobody in their right mind drove around these parts.
He had only walked for about ten minutes when he saw a taxi heading in his direction. The cab was another of the rounded-bodied cars, with a battered red-and-white exterior and blacked-out windows. As Jonathan flagged it and it pulled to a stop next to him, he could see the words Happy Cab Co. on the door, with a jaunty smiley-face above them. The line of bullet holes stitched across the face marred its cheerful effect somewhat.
“Where to, mac?” the cabbie asked. He was a dark-skinned ork in a greasy baseball cap. His accent was thick and unidentifiable.
Jonathan gave him the address, then climbed in and gingerly settled into the seat. The cab’s interior smelled of old fish, sweat, and smoke. The ork grunted something Jonathan couldn’t quite catch, then pressed the button to start the meter running and pulled back out into traffic.
Jonathan watched out the window as the scenery rolled by. He hadn’t remembered everything looking quite this dingy and broken-down before, but he reminded himself that this was not a part of town he normally frequented. I’ll need to call the police when I get back to the office too, he mused. If this guy is out looking for me, I’m going to want them to at least be aware of it. Maybe increase the security around the office and the apartment for awhile.
The cab ride took about twenty minutes. By the time the driver pulled up in front of the address Jonathan had given him, the meter read 12.50. “Here y’are,” the ork said indifferently.
Jonathan looked out the window and froze. “Wait,” he protested. “There must be some mistake.”
The cab was double-parked at the curb, not in front of the high-rise office building that Jonathan had been expecting—instead, an ugly, squattish structure that looked like a parking garage loomed in its place.
“Ya did say 2630 First Avenue, right?” The cabdriver turned slightly in his seat to regard Jonathan, suspicion showing in his hooded eyes. He gestured toward the garage. “This is the place. That’ll be 12.50.”
“But...” Jonathan paused for a moment, looking back and forth between the garage and the cabdriver. “This is supposed to be the McClintock Building. That’s where my business is: R. and J. Andrews.”
The ork shrugged. “Sorry, mac. You gimme an address, I take ya there. That’s it. Now c’mon. I gotta get back on the road. Ya wanna stay here, or go somewhere else?”
Jonathan considered for a moment, then made a quick decision. “Yes. I want to go somewhere else.” He recited the address of the building where he and his father shared a spacious apartment on the top floor. “Take me there, please.”
“You’re the boss, mac.” The cabdriver started the meter going again and pulled back out into traffic. Jonathan could tell by his bearing that he didn’t think much of this odd passenger, but he didn’t care about that. It wasn’t a cabbie’s job to care about his passengers’ lives—just to deliver them where they wanted to go.
Again the drive took around twenty minutes: the distance wasn’t quite as far, but the traffic was heavier. Once more as they approached the area, Jonathan felt the all-too-familiar feeling of dread settling like a cold lump in his stomach. His heart was beating a little too fast, his hands knotted into fists. Outside the window, the neighborhood was deteriorating: the tall buildings and relatively clean streets of the business district were giving way to more graffiti, more trash lining the curbs, fewer cars. Something was definitely wrong, and it was getting more wrong by the minute.
The cab stopped again, and again Jonathan looked out the window with a sense of fear and disbelief. “Oh, my God...” he whispered. “No...”
This time, he recognized the building. It wasn’t hard to do— it was the building he had entered and exited at least twice a day for the last several years. The architecture was familiar, a solid example of the late 20th-century modern style, soaring and airy.
Or at least it had been soaring and airy. Jonathan stared, wide-eyed, at the blasted hulk that had been his home. The building existed to only about half of its former twenty stories; it looked like someone had hastily blocked off the top floors to prevent anyone from entering an area that was undoubtedly hazardous. The bottom floors, formerly dominated by the large picture windows of restaurants and shops, were now boarded up, with no glass in sight. The concrete surface was covered to a distance of about ten feet up with more of the ubiquitous gang graffiti.
Even so, though, the place did not look unoccupied. As he continued to watch, the doors opened several times to allow people to exit: people dressed in all sorts of street styles from cheap but clean suits to studded leather and body piercings. People were entering, too, with the air of individuals who were quite familiar with the building. Residents? “What—what happened to it?” he whispered.
The cabdriver, whom he had almost forgotten about, shrugged. “Don’t know what you mean.”
“What happened to the top?” he demanded in frustration.
“Dunno. Don’t come around here very often. You gonna get out, or you wanna keep going?” He sounded like he would be quite content to drive this weirdo around all day if it meant the fare kept mounting. Currently it stood at 26.25.
Jonathan took a deep breath. He had two choices: he could either keep riding around in the cab, running up his fare until he ran out of the money he had gotten for the watch-phone, or he could get out here and see what he could find out. Where else could I go? he asked himself, realizing that if his office and his home didn’t exist anymore, he had no way to know if the rest of his world did either. He could spend the day going from futile destination to futile destination, at least until his money ran out. If he had gotten no further by then—
“I’ll get out here,” he said.
The cabdriver nodded. “You got it, mac. That’ll be 26.50.”
Jonathan pulled out the credstick and examined the slot. Hoping he was doing the right thing, he shoved the stick into the slot, leaving the display end visible. As he watched, his balance went from 175.00 to 148.50. The fare display flashed Tip? and Jonathan punched in 4.00—a bit over the customary 15 percent—without even thinking about it. These kinds of calculations came easily to him. The credstick adjusted itself accordingly and then flashed OK. Jonathan pulled it out and opened the door.
“Thanks, mac. ‘Luck.” The cabdriver didn’t wait around long; as soon as Jonathan got out and closed the door, he pulled away and was gone.
Jonathan put the credstick back in his front pocket and looked around the area where he had chosen to stop. It wasn’t just his residential building—the whole area looked like its fortunes had fallen significantly since Jonathan had last been here. It was far too drastic a change to have occurred in the space of an evening, or even a few days. Even without looking hard, he could notice the signs of the kind of decay that took years to occur: eroded concrete, dingy streets, windows boarded up with rusted nails. The people who passed him by looked like they spent much of their lives worrying about the basic necessities of life, their expressions wary, guarded, and forlorn. They did not meet Jonathan’s eyes as they passed; the few who did quickly looked away as if they expected something unpleasant to befall them if they paid too much attention to strangers in their neighborhood.
As he looked around trying to decide on his next move, a rumble in his stomach alerted him to the fact that he was hungry. He didn’t know what time it was anymore because he’d sold his watch, but it felt like it was getting toward lunchtime. Even if it wasn’t, he didn’t know when he’d last eaten and he could certainly do with a bite.
He approached one of the people coming out of his building: a slightly harried looking human male in a clean but threadbare suit. “Excuse me...”
The man’s head jerked up, his eyes full of fear. His entire body was stiff, poised to flee. “Yeah?”
“Is there somewhere around here I can get some lunch?”
The man seemed as if he was preparing to answer another question, then looked startled as the expected question didn’t materialize. “Lunch? Uh...yeah. If you go a couple blocks down that way—” he pointed off to the left “—there’s a diner.” With one last quick look at Jonathan, the man hurried off without waiting for thanks.
Jonathan took a deep breath, watching the man go. Just get something to eat, he told himself. You’re hungry. You’ll think straighter when you’ve had some lunch. Worry about it then. It was good advice. He decided to take it.
The diner was named Marge’s Eat ‘n’ Run Diner, and it was right where the man had said it would be—about two blocks from where the cab had let Jonathan off. It was situated on the lower floor of an ugly five-story building that appeared to house apartments on its upper floors. Jonathan entered slowly, remaining alert to his surroundings. A hastily-scrawled sign taped to the door read: “Special Today—Sloppy Soy Burger, Frys, Soda, ¥5.50.” Beneath it, a caricature of a plump, jolly waitress made an “OK” sign with her thumb and forefinger and winked, as if trying to let the would-be customer in on some sort of secret.
Inside, the lunch rush hadn’t quite hit yet, which allowed Jonathan to find a small unoccupied table near the back. He observed the clientele while waiting for one of the place’s two waitresses to find time for him: the diner was about half full, with the customers consisting of about half humans with the remaining half made up mostly of orks and dwarfs. He noticed one troll perched precariously on a chair that looked far too small for him, perusing a menu held gingerly in a massive hand; he also noticed two elven teenagers—one male, one female—seated at one of the booths near the front.
After a couple of minutes, the older of the two waitresses approached Jonathan’s table. She was dressed in a no-nonsense uniform and unattractive but comfortable looking shoes. Her nametag read BRITTANY loves Marge’s Homestyle Cookin’. “What can I getcha?” she asked. Her voice was harsh, probably from too much yelling across crowded spaces, but friendly enough.
Jonathan had spent so much time watching the customers that he hadn’t looked at the menu. “Uh...I’ll just have the special,” he said hastily. Food was food, and he doubted that any of it around here was going to be all that spectacular.
“One special, comin’ up.” The waitress was already moving off as she spoke, heading for another customer. Jonathan settled back in his seat and allowed himself to rest for a few moments, trying to calm his racing thoughts and bring some order to his mind. Whatever was going on wasn’t going to get solved if he allowed himself to lose focus. Problems were things to be solved, and he was good at solving them. This was just another problem.
The dwarf woman at the next table got up to leave, and Jonathan’s gaze fell on the item she left behind on the table. It looked like a newspaper, only smaller and printed on flimsier paper. He looked up to make sure that the dwarf wasn’t coming back, then got up to snag the paper before the busboy whisked it away with the dirty dishes. He spread it out on the table in front of him and began to look it over. An audible gasp escaped his lips when he saw the masthead—or, more specifically, the date.
September 17, 2059.
Jonathan froze, a cold tingle running down his spine and settling once again in his stomach. He picked up the paper, pulling it closer, but that didn’t change the numbers on the page. “Twenty...fifty...nine...” he whispered aloud. He wasn’t even conscious of the fact that his hand had closed around the paper, wrinkling part of its fragile substance into a wad.
His head jerked up quickly, his sharp eyes checking out the other customers in an almost accusatory fashion, as if he expected them all to be laughing at him for falling for the joke.
No one was laughing. In fact, no one was paying any attention to him. They went about their business without even a glance in his direction.
He looked back down at the paper. It hadn’t changed. 2059. His mind fought to make sense out of this new bit of information. It wasn’t 2059. It was 2032. He was Jonathan Andrews, only son and business partner of Richard Andrews, working his way up the corporate ladder at their family business, R. and J. Andrews, Inc. This was Manhattan, his home was here, and something was wrong—
“Here’s y’special.” A voice intruded into his increasingly racing thoughts. He looked up to see Brittany standing there holding a heavy plate and a plastic tumbler of soda with a paper-wrapped straw stuck to the side. He sat back, giving her the room to set the plate down in front of him. The meal looked singularly unappetizing, but at least it was hot. “Excuse me...” he ventured.
“Yeah?” Brittany hovered, poised in mid-turn to take flight again back toward the kitchen.
“Would you mind telling me...what the date is?”
She cocked her head at him as if to say oh, great—another weirdo, but she shrugged. “Sure. It’s September 17.”
“September 17. 2059.”
Now she was looking at him even more strangely. “Yeah. 2059.” She forced a toothy smile. “Enjoy y’meal. Just wave if y’need anyt’ing.”
Jonathan finished his meal in a mechanical haze. He didn’t remember eating the greasy soyburger and equally greasy fries, nor did he remember finishing off the soda that went with it, but when he looked again they were gone and he wasn’t hungry anymore. When he was done he got up, paid his tab, and left the diner, moving like a man who had just been smacked in the head and hadn’t quite recovered from it yet. He had folded up the front page of the newspaper and shoved it in his pocket before he left.
The rest of the afternoon passed in a similar blur of occasional flashes of lucidity followed by long stretches of allowing his autopilot mechanism to guide him up and down the streets, watching the people, the cars, the buildings without really seeing any of them. Once, in an odd moment of clarity, it seemed to him that the city made sense—the colors were brighter, the odd fashions and vehicle designs were normal, and his own presence belonged there—but then the fog descended again and he continued to wander. No one bothered him; it seemed that everyone else was interested in minding his or her own business as well. In his clear moments he was grateful for that.
He didn’t realize it was getting dark until he noticed that the streetlights—at least the ones that hadn’t been shot out or broken by street kids throwing rocks—were beginning to come on. It was twilight now, still bright enough that the lights weren’t necessary for visibility, but still the idea of darkness brought Jonathan’s mind back to some semblance of rationality.
I can’t stay out here tonight. I have to find somewhere to stay, or someone I know. It’s not safe to be on the streets after dark. For the first time that day he wished he had brought the gun from the hotel room—at least then he would have some protection if anyone tried to bother him. That thought brought back the vision of the room and the man who had occupied it, but of course he had no vision of that man. He wondered if he had managed to get away, to elude the man long enough that it wouldn’t be worth his while to hunt for him. He hoped so. He had been trying to pay attention around him, making sure that no one was surreptitiously following, but the foggy episodes had made that difficult to maintain.
There weren’t as many public telecoms around here, especially not out on the street. He had only seen two in the last couple of hours, and one of those looked like somebody had emptied the clip of a very nasty firearm into it. The ‘Out of Order’ sign hanging over its screen had been a rather superfluous touch given the circumstances. As the light grew dimmer, Jonathan decided he would have to try to find a place to stay, and that meant entering one of the bars he’d been passing to try to find a telecom inside. Most of the other stores had closed already, their windows and doors enshrouded securely by heavy metal gratings.
There was no shortage of bars around, though, which he supposed was fortunate. He chose one that looked rather more respectable than its companions (which wasn’t saying much) and headed inside.
His senses were assaulted almost all at once: his eyes by the inky, smoke-filled dimness, his ears by the driving beat of the music being pumped through the numerous speakers stationed around the place, his nose by the tang of smoke and the reek of unwashed bodies overlaid by the ever-present stench of cheap liquor. The place wasn’t large but it was full, with all the tables and the space at the bar itself occupied by what looked like mostly young humans and orks. There was a space in the far back corner that looked like it might have been a dance floor, but it was hard to tell for sure through the crush of bodies that might have been dancing or might have just been having a particularly intimate conversation. Jonathan hesitated a moment, wondering if perhaps he should choose another bar. Stop it, he chided himself. It’s just a bar. Just find out where you can stay, call a cab, and get out of here.
Thus self-castigated, he quickly wended his way back through the bar before he lost his nerve. He had made it about halfway to the rear when a thought occurred to him: why was he bothering with the telecom when he had a live bartender here to ask? Bartenders were renowned for their knowledge of their local areas—perhaps this one would give up some useful information for the price of a beer. Pleased with himself for managing to think clearly even in the midst of this very strange situation, Jonathan altered course and pushed himself up to the bar.
It took a few moments for the barkeep, a tall human wearing a white bib apron over a black button-down shirt, to approach him. “What can I getcha, chummer?”
“I’ll have a beer,” Jonathan said, pitching his voice a bit louder to get over the noise of the crowd and the music.
“Anchor Steam.” Jonathan’s eyes widened. The words had just popped out without any conscious thought process behind them. Where did that come from? he wondered, but he let it stand.
“Comin’ up.” The bartender moved off and came back less than a minute later with Jonathan’s order. “That’ll be four bucks.”
Jonathan had already scouted out the credstick reader, so he had no trouble completing the transaction. Before the bartender could leave again to attend another customer, he said loudly, “Do you know anywhere decent around here to stay?”
“Like a hotel, you mean?”
The bartender thought about it a minute. “Depends on what you call ‘decent’ and ‘around here.’ There ain’t no Hiltons around this area, if that’s what you mean.”
“No...just someplace clean...not too expensive.”
Again the bartender paused. “Yeah,” he said at last. “There’s the Gonzalez on Bond. Little place, family run. That’s about five blocks from here. Mrs. Gonzalez’ll treat ya right if she’s got any room left. Just don’t try nothin’ funny, ‘cause her boy’s a troll and he don’t like trouble.” He quickly rattled off specific directions for how to get there.
Jonathan struggled to hear him so as not to miss anything important. “Thanks,” he said, taking a sip of the beer. It was good, and tasted right somehow. For a brief moment the same feeling he’d experienced earlier in the day—the feeling that everything was as it should be—drifted over him, but then it was gone again.
“Null sheen, chummer.” With a last nod, the man turned away, off to the call of another customer.
Jonathan finished his beer while he considered his options. He could try walking to the Gonzalez, or he could get a cab. It’s only five blocks, he thought. That’s not so far...and I don’t know how much I’ll have to pay for the room. I’d better not waste the money on the cab. If I leave now it’s not even full dark yet. He didn’t like the conclusions he was reaching, but he knew they were good ones. The last thing he wanted to do was get there and discover that he was just a small amount short of what he’d need to pay for the room.
He set the empty beer glass decisively down on the bar, got up, and headed for the door.
He didn’t notice the heads of three figures near the front of the bar swivel around to follow his motion as he left, and he didn’t notice them get up and, after a few seconds, follow him.
It was darker than he’d expected it to be when he got outside. The air was too smog-choked to see the moon, but the streetlights were actually earning their keep now, picking out little circles of moist illumination down the sides of the dingy street.
Jonathan blew his breath out slowly, watching the resulting cloud of vapor rise and dissipate. Raising the collar of his coat, he started walking. Only five blocks, he repeated to himself. That’s not very far. Just walk fast and you’ll be there in no time. The heels of his boots made dull quick thudding noises as he hurried away, trying to look purposeful but not to draw too much attention to himself. A light mist hung in the air, sending an uncomfortable chill into his bones despite the protection of the coat.
He noticed right away that there weren’t many people out on the street. He could pick out the far-off sounds of dueling musical choices from the various bars up and down the street, but other than that the traffic seemed mostly confined to people in cars and a few straggling souls moving from bar to bar. Even the few streetwalkers he noticed stayed close to the bars and did not venture far away in search of customers. Two of them propositioned him, but he ignored them and went on.
He’d made it about three blocks toward his goal when he became aware that he was being followed. He wasn’t sure quite how he knew—he hadn’t heard anything consciously— but a tingle in the back of his neck settled an odd certainty in his mind that his progress was being tracked. His muscles stiffened a bit, the crawling fear-feeling creeping back into his gut. Again he wished he’d brought the gun along, but wasn’t sure he’d be able to use it—to kill someone—if he had. Two more blocks, he whispered. Just keep moving and you’ll get there. Just—
A figure stepped out in front of him. “Hoi.” He was tall, broad, but not ork-broad—a human. Jonathan stopped, his quick gaze taking in the greasy long hair covered by a filthy do-rag, the synth-leather jacket festooned with metal studs and obscene artwork, the wide, grinning face with small glittering eyes. He couldn’t have been older than seventeen or eighteen. “You got the time, chummer?” His expression was placidly malicious, like he was waiting for something good to happen but he had the patience not to rush it.
Jonathan glanced off to both sides, then back at the youth. “I’m sorry, but I don’t. If you’ll excuse me—” He took a step forward, hoping even as he knew it was futile that the young thug would let him by.
The thug blocked him. His grin grew marginally wider. “Well, that’s too bad, ain’t it?” One hand, which had been in the pocket of his jacket, came out to reveal a knife. “I ain’t never seen you ‘round here before. You look like a little lost fairy tourist. ‘Zat what you are, daisy-eater?”
Jonathan tensed. Even after all the years he had been an elf, he had never quite grown used to the racial slurs. He could feel his heartrate pick up speed, a light sweat breaking out on his forehead as anger warred with terror inside him. How was he going to get out of this?
“Maybe he got lost from his little treehugger tour group,” came a voice from off to his left. Another figure detached itself from the shadows and approached. This one was a little smaller than the first, also human. His grin revealed ugly, stained teeth.
“Ain’t that unfortunate.” This time the voice came from his right. The third thug was female, human, dressed like the other two except for an almost comically elaborate hairstyle. “Maybe he don’t know what we do to little lost fairies.”
“Maybe not,” the first one said speculatively. He addressed Jonathan. “You know what we do to lost fairies?”
Jonathan didn’t answer. He took a step back, only to find that the other two thugs had moved behind him, enclosing him within a triangle. The parked cars on one side and the building walls on the other formed an effective barrier to quick escape.
The thug in front of him laughed; it was an unpleasant sound, as ugly as he was. He held up the knife. “We don’t like fairies, see? Fraggin’ daisy-eaters don’t belong around here. Fraggin’ halfers, fraggin’ trogs...none of ‘em belong here. But we hate fairies worst of all, ya scan? So see...when we find a fairy, we figure he’s got two choices: he can pay the fairy tax, or he can let us make those pointy ears look like reg’lar human ears.”
“Yeah!” said the skinny human male, drawing his own knife. “Fairy tax!”
Still Jonathan didn’t speak. His mind was racing, trying to find a way out, a way to escape. Maybe if I move fast, I can get between those cars—
“So what’s it gonna be, pixie?” the first thug asked. “You can pay the fairy tax, which tonight is—lessee—fifty bucks, tonight—or you can lose the pixie-points. Whaddya say?”
“Ooh, can I do it?” the woman cried, grinning. Now she had a knife too, a pearl-handled thing that was bigger than the ones her companions held. “Lemme do it, Spud. I’ll make ‘em all purdy!”
“Sure, baby. Give it that woman’s touch, you know? But hey—maybe he wants to pay the—”
Jonathan broke right and ran, his reflexes fueled by desperation, heading for the tiny space between two parked cars.
He almost made it too. He would have made it if something odd had not happened—suddenly, as his adrenaline kicked in, his body felt lighter, faster, primed for movement. The thugs were a blur, moving in molasses for a moment, impossibly slow, ponderous—
—and then he was falling. His mind, unable to cope with this new and unexpected burst of speed, failed to keep up with his reflexes and he was pitched headlong into the back end of one of the cars.
He hit hard, pain exploding through his body, and then he was rolling. The thugs were yelling, moving at normal speed again, heading for him. Their knives were raised, their eyes blazing with rage at almost losing their prey. They closed in—
—the pain flowered in his head—
And then, blackness.
That was the first thing he noticed when awareness returned: that his entire body ached like it had been pummeled by trolls wearing boxing gloves.
Tentatively, he tried to move, to test his limbs, ready to stop immediately if he felt anything rip or tear or bleed.
But nothing did.
He heard a vague voice swirling in his mind: “I t’ink he’s awake, Mrs. M.”
He opened his eyes. His vision fuzzed for a second (it was an odd sort of fuzzing, more like pixellation than mental fog, but he scarcely paid it any mind) and then resolved itself.
The scene he had expected to see—darkness, a damp street, or possibly a hospital—did not materialize. Instead he was lying on a narrow, metal-frame bed next to a wall covered by cracking plaster. Hanging on the wall was a brightly-colored calendar depicting two ork children playing with a puppy; the calendar didn’t quite cover the long crack in the wall.
He turned his head. A young ork male was seated next to the bed, watching him. When their gazes met, the ork smiled. “Easy,” he said. “You’re okay. Just a little banged up, that’s all.”
“Where—?” Jonathan’s voice came out sounding a bit cracked and shaky. What happened? he wanted to ask. Why didn’t they kill me? Why didn’t they catch me? But none of that came out.
The ork put a gentle hand on his shoulder. “It’s okay,” he said gently. “Everything’s fine. You’re at the Bleecker Street Shelter. My name’s Rick. You’re safe here.”
“Well! Look who’s awake!” a cheerful, Irish-accented female voice boomed over Jonathan’s question. As the owner of the voice got closer, Jonathan got a good look at her: tall for a dwarf but characteristically squat, middle-aged, her long hair pulled back, her dress worn but clean, her eyes sparkling. She approached the bed and regarded Jonathan with an appraising eye. “How you feelin’, friend?”
Jonathan took a deep breath and sat up a little. He didn’t hurt as much as he’d expected to—his aches were more of a general variety. “What happened?” he asked again. His voice sounded stronger this time.
The dwarf woman pulled up a chair next to the bed. “Rick, would you mind takin’ care of finishin’ up the dishes while I fill our friend in?”
“Sure, Mrs. M.” The ork grinned at them both, nodded to Jonathan, and hurried off.
As soon as he was gone, the dwarf turned back to Jonathan. “What happened. That’s a bit of a story, but I can see you’re gonna be restless until you find out. So I’ll start at the beginning. My name’s Molly Muldoon. What’s yours, by the way?”
“Jonathan. Jonathan Andrews.”
Molly Muldoon nodded. “Pleased ta meet you, Jonathan Andrews. You’re at the Bleecker Street Shelter, which I run. The reason you’re here is that Rick there—” she nodded toward the direction the ork had disappeared “—and a couple of his friends happened to be out last night and noticed you gettin’ hassled by some o’ the local riff-raff. From what I hear, it sounded like they were plannin’ to cut you up good. ‘Twas a good thing Rick and them found you ‘fore they did. Afterward you were out like a light, so they brought ya here.”
Jonathan nodded slowly. He looked down at himself, noticing that he was dressed in just his T-shirt and shorts. He looked around for his clothes, but didn’t see them.
Molly Muldoon looked apologetic. “Sorry, lad, but I’m afraid your coat’s gone. Those thugs had already got it before Rick and the boys got there.” She smiled. “Don’t worry, though—yer jeans ‘n’ boots are fine. We hung ‘em up, and the boots are under the bed.”
His eyes widened. “My credstick—”
Again she shook her head. “Was it in yer coat?”
“Then I’m afraid it’s gone too. I’m sorry...I hope ye didn’t lose much. Unfortunately money’s one thing that’s pretty tight around here.”
Jonathan was silent for a moment. No credstick, and no way to get more money. What was he going to do?
“You’re not from around here, are you?” Molly asked gently.
He thought about that for a moment before answering. Did he want to tell this woman his whole, strange story? “No,” he finally said. It was easier that way.
She nodded. “Could tell. Shouldn’t’ve been out so late. The riff-raff, they like to hassle good folks. ‘Specially good metahuman folks. We usually stay inside after dark, ‘cept for Alfonso and Luke—nobody’d think of pickin’ on them.”
Jonathan sat up a little more, trying to head the dwarf off in mid-ramble. “You said this was a shelter—”
“Yup.” She gestured around her. The rest of the room was largish and contained five more beds just like the one Jonathan currently occupied. “Folks come and go, but we usually have about thirty or so every night, including the littl’uns. We look after ‘em, give ‘em a hot meal and a safe place to stay till they can get on their feet again. When they can, they get jobs and help with the upkeep of the place.” Her voice was full of pride; obviously this place was a very important part of her life.
“And rescue elves in trouble,” Jonathan added wryly.
“Yeah, we do a bit o’ that too.” Her eyes twinkled. “We don’t get many elves, though. Mostly orks ‘n’ dwarves, a few trolls like Luke and Alfonso.”
She shook her head. “We wouldn’t turn ‘em away, of course—we never turn anybody in need away here, ‘slong as they’ve got a good heart and are willing to pitch in—but there’s usually other, better places the humans can go.” There was no bitterness in her voice at that; it was as if she was simply stating a well-known fact. She looked Jonathan over. “How do you feel? We couldn’t find any real injuries—looks like all they had a chance to do was knock you around a bit before we found you.”
Jonathan tested out his limbs, noting that he did have a few bruises but nothing more serious. His head throbbed a bit, as did his shoulder, but the coat seemed to have taken up most of the impact of his beating. “I think I’ll be all right,” he said at last. He met her gaze. “Thank you. I don’t know what I’d have done if—”
“That’s all right, lad,” she said, smiling. “It’s what we do around here. We can’t make much of a difference, but we do what we can.”
“I’d like to repay you somehow...but—”
She held up her hands. “Don’t worry about it. You rest. If you’re feelin’ up to it, dinner’s in about half an hour. Dining room’s down the hall, you can’t miss it. After you’re feelin’ better, we’ll talk.”
Jonathan nodded. “Thank you,” he said again. “For everything.”
Molly chuckled. “You just wait,” she said. “If you’re really serious about wantin’ to pay us back, there’s plenty of things around here you can help with.” She stood and patted his shoulder. “Hope to see you at dinner, but if you don’t feel up to it, somebody’ll bring you a plate.”
Jonathan did feel well enough to show up at dinner—or more precisely, he forced himself to feel well enough because he decided it was not courteous of him to remain in bed with only a few bruises when everyone else was eating. He pulled on his jeans, wincing a bit at the pain in his stiff muscles, and padded down the hall in his stocking feet.
The dining room was bigger than the bedroom he’d been in by a significant margin. It too had cracked-plaster walls and was lit by several hanging bulbs that had been covered by homemade shades to make them less harsh. Three long tables were arranged parallel to each other in the middle of the room, their centers decorated by old but still colorful bouquets of fake flowers. The smell of food, strong and pleasant, wafted through the room. A battered chip player at one end of one of the tables filled the room with cheerful music.
There were already a number of people waiting, lining up on the far side of the room near the door to what could only be the kitchen. Jonathan noticed two dwarves, an ork woman with three children, another ork woman with four children, and a Latino troll lined up, each one holding a white, institutional-looking bowl.
Rick, the ork who had first talked to Jonathan, waved when he saw him. “Hoi!” he called. “Glad to see you made it. Grab a bowl and get right in line.”
Jonathan did as he was told, picking up one of the cracked bowls and taking his place behind the Latino troll, listening to the happy chatter going on around him. The troll was having a conversation about some local news item with one of the ork women, while the restless children tried to remain calm long enough to get their food. They all smiled at Jonathan, welcoming him to their group without fanfare.
He noticed when he got to the front of the line that Rick was manning two large pots, scooping out thick stew into each bowl. When it was Jonathan’s turn, Rick chose the left pot. Jonathan noticed at that point that the stew from the right pot had meat; from the left, only vegetables. The ork grinned at Jonathan. “Enjoy.”
Dinner was a bit of a blur. The stew was simple but surprisingly good and filling. Nobody seemed to mind that Jonathan kept to himself, being polite and gracious to the others seated at his table but not joining in their conversation. He suspected they were probably giving him his space because of what had happened to him, which was fine with him.
People drifted in and out over the next hour or so, and when the dinner hour was finally winding to a close, Molly Muldoon sat down across the table from Jonathan. He noticed that she too was eating the vegetable stew. She smiled and sighed. “It never ends,” she said, but it didn’t sound like she minded much. “Will you keep me company while I eat?”
“Of course.” Jonathan pushed his bowl aside.
“Thanks. Usually everybody’s mostly gone before I get around to eating.” She scooped up a healthy spoonful and paused to chew before continuing. “So, Jonathan Andrews—what’s your story?”
He tilted his head. “What do you mean?”
She smiled. “Everybody has a story. A reason why they end up here. Some people can’t get a job, some people can’t afford to work ‘cause they don’t have anybody to look after their kids, some people wander into the wrong part of the town and get beat up—”
“That’s me,” Jonathan said, surprised that he could smile about it.
Molly chuckled. “Yeah, but what about before that? You got somewhere to go? You look like you do—too healthy for somebody who’s lived around here for long.”
“I—” Jonathan sighed, looking down. “I used to. I don’t know anymore.”
She nodded sympathetically. “We get a bit of that, too. Lots of folks fall on hard times. We don’t ask questions here. All we ask is that folks do their share and don’t do anything to cause trouble. For that you get two square meals a day, a place to sleep, and maybe some friends.” She looked at him. “I know it’s a little soon to ask, but are you thinkin’ ‘bout stayin’ awhile, or you gonna be on your way?”
For a long moment Jonathan didn’t answer. He had almost said, I’ll be on my way, but where? He had no money, no way of getting more, no home—the world was falling apart around him. Right now, the haven of Molly Muldoon’s Bleecker Street Shelter seemed like a good place to get himself together for awhile before he went once more in search of his life. “Could I—stay?” he asked tentatively. “For awhile, I mean? A few days?”
She smiled. “Lad, you can stay for as long as you like, as long as you do something to help us out and don’t mind sleepin’ on the floor if we get too many kids or women or old folks some nights.”
Her words gave him relief, more than he would have expected. “Thank you,” he said. “What sort of things do you need help with?”
Molly shrugged. “Everything. Cooking, cleaning, fixing the place up, taking care of the little ones and the sick ones, or—”
“—You said money was a problem,” Jonathan interrupted. He suddenly had an idea.
“Money’s always a problem.”
“What kind of...management do you have around here?”
Molly looked confused. “I’m not sure what you mean. I’m in charge of the—”
Jonathan nodded. “Yes, I know. But I mean—do you have anyone here who knows how to manage money?”
She thought about that a moment, then sighed. “I look after the books, but I’ve never really been too good at that sort of thing. Usually we don’t have much money to keep track of.”
“Perhaps that’s where I can help you.” Jonathan leaned forward. “It’s something I’ve done for a long time, and I’m good at it. Let me help you with that.”
Molly looked dubious. “Well...I’m not sure...”
“I’ll help,” Jonathan said, realizing that this woman had no reason to trust him. “I’ll show you how to do it, so then you can do it yourself after I’m gone. I’m sure I can teach you a few things that will help you get more for your money.”
Again Molly was silent for several moments, mulling that over. Then she looked up and nodded once. “We’ll give it a try, then!” she said decisively. “You rest, and we’ll start in the morning. If you can make sense out of our accounting, you’ll be a godsend!”
And Jonathan did exactly that. He showed up bright and early the next morning, and before the end of the day, Molly had turned over most of the business side of the shelter’s management to him. She seemed grateful to do it, too, because it allowed her to spend more time doing what she loved: taking care of the shelter’s denizens. The only part she retained control over was the actual accounts: Jonathan would need her authorization before he was permitted to spend any money.
That injunction lasted only until the end of the week. By that point Jonathan had gotten to know all of the shelter’s regular residents: Carla and Lavonne, the two ork mothers and their children; Alfonso and Luke, the two trolls who were the place’s primary security force; Mr. Huggins, an elderly dwarf who was always kind and pleasant despite a heavy alcohol habit; Wilhelmina, a mildly retarded teenage ork girl who nonetheless wanted more out of life than to become a streetwalker or a chiphead; Freddie, a young dwarf with a bad leg and a talent for art; and Rick, the ork who was Mrs. Muldoon’s right hand, chief handyman, carpenter, and general get-it-done guy. Other people drifted through just as Mrs. M. had said, but they rarely stayed long, on their way to somewhere else.
By the end of the week Jonathan was showing no signs of being one of these transient residents: he had settled into the shelter routine like he had been born to it, already finding ways to save money, to raise more money, to give the place a little breathing room against the ever-present wolf hovering at their door. He had redone Mrs. Muldoon’s haphazard account books and brought them into order the first day, and after that he had applied himself diligently to improving the situation wherever he could. One afternoon the dwarf woman took him aside. “Jonathan,” she said, “You’ve been here a week now. I wanted to ask you—are you planning on sticking around? I know you don’t have a job, but—well—I’d like to offer you one. As our full-time business manager. We can’t pay much—” she grinned “—as I’m sure you know better than I do. About all I can offer you is a little room of your own and a little money each week...but—” She looked at him. “I know it’s only been a week and it’s probably wrong to trust somebody I’ve only known a week, but I’ve always prided myself on being a good judge of character. I believe you’re an honest and trustworthy young man, so I want to prove that to you—and besides, I don’t want to lose somebody who’s as good with money as you are!”
Jonathan smiled. “I’d like that, Mrs. Muldoon. I’d be happy to accept the job.” And as he said it, he knew it was right. Even in this short time, he felt like he belonged here. He knew he was going to have to leave at some point, to find out about his past, but for now this seemed like the right thing to do.
And so Jonathan Andrews became the official business manager of the Bleecker Street Shelter. It was a long way from junior partner in R. and J. Andrews, Incorporated, but in many ways the position was more interesting. Because he had already been doing the job in everything but name, he fell into it like he was meant to be there. Mrs. Muldoon altered the shelter’s accounts to include him so he could handle transactions on his own, and before long he was performing more of his financial wizardry on the place’s meager coffers. Not only did he find ways to stretch the money they had to get more value, but he also began reaching out, seeking out sources of funding. He tirelessly made calls, sought out charities and businesses known to be friendly to metahumans, and made presentations in favor of providing support, both in the form of monetary contributions and of donations of goods, to the shelter. They were still going to have money troubles—he had a talent for this but he was not a miracle worker, and he still got a lot of doors closed in his face—but it was clear to everyone who lived at Bleecker Street that their lives had improved in tangible ways since the coming of this pleasant but quiet elf.
More time passed, and as Jonathan spent more and more time devoted to his new position, an odd thing happened: his memories of his past life began to fade. He didn’t realize it at first, because it happened slowly and gradually over the course of a couple of weeks, but one night as he prepared for bed in his tiny room, he tried to recall his old life at the corporation. He found that it was a difficult thing to do. He had trouble visualizing his father’s face, the apartment where they had lived, his friends from those days. The realization frightened him briefly, but then slowly he calmed.
Perhaps this was what he had been meant to do all along. He was happy here, he was doing what he loved and was good at, and people appreciated his efforts. Was there really much more he could ask for?
He smiled, settling down in his bed, pulling the covers up. Tomorrow was another day, another chance to pit his intellect and his talents against the world to help out the people who had taken him in. It was going to be a good day.
Copyright ©1999, 2000 R. King-Nitschke. The Shadowrun universe is the property of FASA Corporation.
No part of this story may be reproduced without permission from the author.